A blast from my past
A year ago I was interviewed for an upstart Christian publication that has since gone under. To be honest, I had forgotten about the article until today when I received an apologetic email from the publisher (citing the lack of subscription sales for the magazine's closure) along with a transcript of the piece. I am very sorry that this periodical was unable to survive the fledgling economy and it would be a shame to disregard their efforts...
Q: What came first in your life: your love for writing; your passion for the Civil War; or your faith?
A: I would have to say my faith first, but not always foremost. I wish I were one of those people who always had strong ties to the church. However, I was a lazy believer who grew up as a casual Catholic and only became a passionate Protestant in my adult life. I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church in western Pennsylvania. My mother was a Baptist and my father was a Lutheran. Both converted to Catholicism as young adults and attended St. Margarets of Scotland in Greentree, a suburb of Pittsburgh. As a youngster, I went to Mass on Sundays and attended religious education classes (CCD). I had my First Holy Communion and Confirmation and also participated in the church-sponsored scouts program. Unfortunately, when I graduated from high school, I stopped attending Mass altogether. My wife on the other hand was an active Presbyterian and we were married in her church. When we started a family, our children were baptized into that denomination. After moving to Virginia in 1994, we felt a strong calling to return to the church, so we both took a theology class. I converted officially to Presbyterianism and we have remained active at Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church ever since. Today my wife runs their nursery and teaches a children’s Wed. night class. I’ve led small bible studies and adult classes over the years.
My vocation as a writer enabled me to witness as a Christian. I became a member of Faith-Writers, which is a wonderful Christian writers’ community. I also self-published a religious-based baseball newsletter called “The Good News: Sharing A Love For the Game and the Gospel.” Once people at church found out what I did, I was asked to contribute articles for our newsletter and speak at various ministry meetings. This enabled me to grow both personally and professionally. Today, my pastors and church family are among my biggest supporters. I’ve also been successful in spreading my message using other mediums. Our local gospel/bluegrass station here in Fredericksburg, 89.5FM WWED offers my books as pledge rewards and broadcasts segments of Civil War-themed devotionals from my book “The Southern Cross,” as daily inspirational messages. The U.S. Marine Corps has also used my books and courseware as part of their Tun Tavern Fellowship and my devotional is circulating overseas among the troops. Websites and blogs have also been great avenues for expanding my work. The Internet has opened a whole new world for ministry. Frankly, without it, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
Q: In your mind, what is the connection between American spirituality and the American Civil War? How did one influence the other?
A: I personally believe that both go hand in hand. America, in the 19th-century, was a very bible-based society. Many Southern historians who specialize in the history of the Confederacy, me included, tend to approach this period of American history in a “bubble” of sorts. As a result, we often find ourselves writing strictly from the perspectives of the white southern secessionists. And although I vehemently maintain that it is extremely important to honor and acknowledge this aspect of our heritage, we also have to recognize that there were two other groups of our citizens sharing the same wartime experience. This would be the local Unionists and the African-American population. Therefore, there are actually three different perspectives to our areas’ experiences during the War Between the States. Each one is just as important as the other and they all deserve to have their stories told. Spiritually, all of these people prayed to the same God, read the same bible and worshipped in the same manner, regardless of their station or cause.
Don’t forget the impact that each (spirituality and war) had on the other. The Civil War not only divided regions and families, it also divided congregations and denominations. Ultimately, the conflict spread far beyond the battlefield and back into the sanctuaries on the home front. For example, up until the outbreak of secession, the American Bible Society, based in New York, handled the production and distribution of most Protestant-based materials, including bibles and tracts. After the conflict began, an entirely new system had to be formed in order to meet the needs of the Southern congregations. Many of these dilemmas were presented in the minutes of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly. One major point addressed the need to establish a new chapter of the Bible Society to shoulder the task of producing and distributing religious materials in the Confederate States.
As the war progressed, a movement referred to as “The Great Revival” took place throughout the Army of the Confederacy. By the war's conclusion, it is estimated that at least 100,000 Confederate troops were “born-again” after being introduced to the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ. Much of this can be credited to the efforts of the South's commanders such as General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who petitioned the government for the acquisition of chaplains to accompany the men into the field. There were also many noteworthy Christians on the Northern side, including General Oliver O. Howard and Father William Corby, the famous chaplain of the “Irish Brigade.” Both sides were filled with a strong devotion to their faith. Both believed that they had the Lord’s blessing. This adds to the triumph and tragedy of it all. In one way, faith gave soldiers the strength to carry on, amidst the darkest of times in our nation’s history. On the other hand, it may have given them a false sense of invincibility or even a misguided belief that their cause was favored over that of their adversaries. I don’t think that God takes sides. I believe that He looks down on all of us in times of war and shakes His head in disappointment. That’s just how I choose to look at it. Man’s sinful nature cannot be denied. We bring misery on ourselves.
Q: You wrote a book about the spirituality of “Stonewall” Jackson, and another book about the spirituality of J.E.B. Stuart. Why did you pick these two specific generals to write about?
A: In those works, my first two books, I set out (writing from the perspective of a Christian) to present an intimate portrait of two gentleman who I believe to be two of the South’s most notable believers. My total “religious-focus,” to an otherwise well-published subject, came about because I have always believed that there is much more to the legacies of these men than magnificent charges and legendary rides around the Union Army. I believe that secular historians have a tendency to focus on the battlefield actions and sometimes forget that there was much more to their subject’s character than just soldiering. For example, the collective memory of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is primarily one of a grim, ferocious, even eccentric warrior, whose steadfast courage and tenacity was tragically cut short by friendly fire. People recall his infectious bravery at the First Battle of Manassas, the brilliance of his Valley Campaign and the grand finale of his storybook career at the victorious Battle of Chancellorsville.
These are all very important events in the life of Thomas Jackson, but it is only when one examines his life off the battlefield, that they discover the story behind the man. Jackson’s story was filled with the kinds of heartaches and hardships that would leave many of us questioning our own beliefs. It was a love story, filled with sorrow, testimony, hope and despair and a story that reaffirms the positive power of prayer. Ultimately, it is the story of a man who suffered greatly, but chose to embrace the will of his Savior as the foundation for a legendary life. Everything that followed was, in my opinion, a direct result of his religious experiences and convictions.
The same can be said about the story of Jackson’s legendary subordinate, J.E.B. Stuart. Was Stuart fanatical in the pursuit of his faith, like Jackson? Probably not, but did religion play a pivotal role in his journey toward greatness? Absolutely. Stuart was a cavalier, but more importantly he was a Christian. He was, first and foremost, a man of faith, a man of duty and a man of devotion. His devotion was to his family, to his country and to his men. This was the brick and mortar of his character and, in my opinion, these admirable traits are what enabled him to rise to such legendary heights. By examining his lineage, upbringing and pre-war experiences, we can peer through the flashy red cloak and flowing black-feathered hat and see the real man that existed beneath that magnificent cinnamon beard.
I’ve been criticized at times by secular and/or academic historians for authoring these books with a distinct religious bias or agenda and I answer that charge as guilty. These two books were specifically meant to uplift and enlighten. I wanted the reader to leave with a belief that faith and conviction matters, and that it can give us strength to carry on, especially in times of war. Obviously there is a difference between writing straight-secular history and that kind. I hope to someday be successful at both.
Q: In your opinion, how did their faith affect their leadership and roles in the Civil War?
A: Despite being very different in terms of their demeanor (Jackson was a very somber and serious gentleman while Stuart was very flamboyant and cavalier) both rose to an almost deity-like status in the eyes of their troops. In retrospect I think that Jackson might be taken aback by our modern-day admiration for him and accuse us of practicing “idol-worship.” As with many of their comrades, it was with a heavy heart that Jackson and Stuart entered the War Between the States. After pledging their loyalty to the Union and serving the U.S. Government with such impeccable duty over the years, their conscience was troubled over participating in what many referred to as a forced resolution. Distraught over the North's political posturing, both men had sworn their allegiance to their home state of Virginia and the Confederate States of America. Both vowed to fight for God and country to the bitter end. That’s exactly what they did.
Faith was certainly a major influence on Jackson’s fundamental principles. Unfortunately, not all gentlemen in the Army of Northern Virginia shared their commander’s passion for prayer. At times, their pious general’s religious enthusiasm annoyed those who were agnostic, including members of his own staff. Several shared the notion, early on, that Jackson’s dependence on prayer hindered his ability to make swift decisions. One evening, during a council of war, Jackson listened intently to various options presented by his subordinates. After they had concluded, he thanked them for their efforts, but added that he would present his own plans in the morning. Leaving him to ponder their strategies, Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill said, “Well, I suppose Jackson wants time to pray over it.” Later that night, Hill’s counterpart, General Richard S. Ewell, returned and observed his superior through the tent flap, on his knees praying intensely for guidance in the difficult movements that lay before them. Upon hearing the excitement in Jackson’s voice and witnessing the sincerity in his heart, Ewell said, “If that is religion, I must have it.”
Many people are unaware that J.E.B. Stuart was also a fervent prayer warrior in the Confederate Army. His faith was that of a converted Methodist, although he was confirmed as an Episcopalian. Regardless of the denomination, throughout his life he maintained a consistent Christian character. During the war, he would repeatedly commend his own pastor stating: “Of my own regiment, the acting chaplain, Rev. Mr. Ball, was conspicuously useful.” In addition to the Reverend Ball, Stuart graciously provided chaplains for all of his regiments and regularly encouraged group prayer sessions as well as religious meetings. The result of his efforts eventually led to the establishment of the Chaplain’s Association which held large gatherings encompassing the entire Confederate forces in the winters of both 1863 and 1864.
Q: How does your own faith affect the way you write?
A: As with most believers, my faith affects every aspect of my life both personally and professionally. With regard to my writing, I would say that it definitely influences what projects and publications I will and will not do. My goals are different from some secular historians. First and foremost, I want people to come to know the joy of having a relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Second, I want them to learn something about themselves by reading about other people in our country’s history. Third, I want them to come away with an appreciation for the people that lived and died in the service to their respective countries.
It’s never been difficult for me to find materials when researching the War Between the States from a religious standpoint. It remains a major aspect in the study of the war. I choose to present stories that are uplifting and inspirational. Let’s face it. American history is our most cherished national treasure. However, learning about it means nothing if we can’t adapt it to our lives today in some tangible, positive manner. It is my sincere hope that my readers will find these stories encouraging and uplifting, and apply the wisdom that they contain in their own lives.
When I do a speaking engagement for a local historical or heritage group, I always try to work in a part of my presentation based on memories. I show a slide of one of our local battlefield sites that I took on a beautiful sunny day. Then I cut to a shot taken after a battle, with bodies littering the exact spot I had just shown. And I say this: “It’s far too easy for us to look back today, especially here in our little piece of Central Virginia, known as the ‘Crossroads of the Civil War,’ and forget the carnage that took place here. People come from all over the world to tour our hallowed grounds. And when they get here, everything is perfect. The grass is neatly trimmed and the markers are polished. The freshly painted cannons are all lined up in neat rows. Yet they are standing in the ‘shadow of death.’ Can you imagine the stench of rotting corpses and animal carcasses, or the resultant proliferation of millions of flies surrounding them? Try to picture the nightmarish scenes that were witnessed by the townsfolk following the battle. So the next time that you find yourself touring one of these postcard-pretty places, remember that although our local National Parks appear romantic, the war that took place there was anything but that. Today this ground is beautiful, but the reason we hallow it was ugly.”
Still in the middle of all this death and destruction, in the midst of all this ugliness were countless examples of God’s glory. That is the reason why I write what I write.
Q: Is it challenging to write objectively when you, as a writer, feel so strongly about both your faith and the Civil War?
A: Absolutely, but.... Objectivity certainly has a distinct time and place in historical memory. Is some of the material that I write biased because I am writing it based upon my faith? Yes, of course, but I firmly believe that readers can decipher the difference between the two. If you are reading my Civil War devotional, you are immediately aware that there is a distinct agenda presented in the subject matter that you would not experience if you were reading my regional history book. There are two different audiences and different purposes for each project. One educates, while the other enlightens.
I will say that writing straight secular Civil War history is more of a challenge to me. I still struggle with this approach at times and I am still learning to do a better job of removing my own values from the narrative. My tendency is to present a story as a tribute, trying to see the good on all sides. This is noble, but it can also, at times, be a disservice to the people you are writing about. A perfect example is my recent book about the historical churches of Fredericksburg entitled “Houses of the Holy.” Initially, the first draft of the manuscript lacked the painful realities that were necessary to tell an accurate story. In short, I wrote a piece that was overly positive and soft on complex issues, such as slavery and the residual effect of the war on the local population. Thankfully, John Hennessy, who reviewed the draft, called me on it and was gracious enough to work through the piece with me to ensure that the final draft reflected the true story. He taught me that it's okay to acknowledge the blemishes that darken our history along the way, and to polish them brightly with my own optimism was not an objective approach to the task.
What isn’t challenging for me is finding the inspiration to write in either genre. The men, women, boys and girls that came before us inspire me. I don’t care if I’m writing about Babe Ruth and the 1927 Yankees or the “Stonewall Brigade’s” ferocity at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The stories of these people deserve to be preserved and presented for the benefit of future generations. I am very fortunate in that I can leave my house here in Fredericksburg and be standing on any one of the four local battlefields in 15 minutes. As I stand on a bluff overlooking a field, and the sun is setting in the background as a gentle breeze is tickling the trees, I have all the inspiration I would ever need. At that exact moment the beauty of God’s creation surrounds me, and I am standing on the hallowed ground of man.
Q: Have you considered writing about spirituality with regard to the North during the Civil War?
A: I have written some material featuring the North. “The Southern Cross” features stories on Yankees such as Oliver Howard, Father Corby, Clara Barton and Johnny Clem. “Houses of the Holy” quotes many letters and correspondence from Union troops who were stationed or wounded at Fredericksburg, but that is a secular work. I’d love to do more and have communicated with some experts on obtaining more information about Union chaplains. Of course living and working here in the “Crossroads of the Civil War,” my work favors the Southern point of view, but I have the utmost respect for the boys in blue too. Maybe someone out there might want to collaborate on a project. My dream is to make a short film documentary that presents the contributions of Confederate and Federal preachers during the four battles that took place around here. But, for now, that will have to remain a consideration for the future.
Q: As a writer and historian what genre do you see yourself pursuing more of in the future, Christian or Secular?
A: Hopefully both, if the good Lord will let me.
A little here + a little there = no burn out
This week a couple of our fellow bloggers posted some very personal and intimate thoughts about suffering from burn-out and taking much-needed breaks. My friend and co-author Eric Wittenberg is a perfect example of someone who took his passion for a subject and successfully applied it to a second career. Eric may be the “hardest working man in the history business” and his self-induced sabbatical is very much deserved. Many of us around the blogosphere, who author books, give lectures, lead tours, and even volunteer with the NPS do so in addition to the rigors and requirements of daily life. Sometimes we are lucky enough to incorporate our interests into our careers (*hint on my upcoming announcement), but in most cases we pursue these endeavors in our “free time.” Why? Because we love preserving and presenting the legacies of extraordinary citizens and soldiers who came before us.
Sometimes the privilege of getting “paid to play” can backfire. There was a period in my last year of working with Baseball-Almanac that I could hardly watch a baseball game. I was so sick and tired of sports after writing about it for 6+ years. It took some time for me to be able to enjoy the game again. I still get burned out about halfway through the regular season and don’t get serious about watching it again until the postseason starts (as a Yankees fan that usually works out). As a longtime resident of Fredericksburg, I am completely surrounded by hallowed grounds and historical sites. That said there are days when the last place I want to be is at a museum, or on a battlefield. Other times I am extremely grateful that both reside within a short drive. Both subjects are near and dear to my heart, but they can also get on my nerves.
My own source of enjoyment in giving tours comes from the camaraderie that I share with attendees. Let’s be honest folks, the Sunken Road and Jackson Shrine have become a “been there - done that” to me, but every time I walk them, I do so with someone different. Therefore I get a whole new batch of conversations, questions and insights. My visitors keep things fresh and thankfully I have yet to spend a bad day on the battlefield. I don’t think I’d be able to say that if I gave tours every day.
The same can be said with my published works. The thrill of seeing my byline or book on a shelf is tempered, and I actually enjoy the research part far more than the writing. Perhaps that is why I have been speaking on the subject lately. The process is where I find my own personal satisfaction, not the product. When this all becomes work, and by “work” I mean the kind that you don’t look forward to doing, I’ll find something else to do. I won’t be able to do this (pardon the term) ‘half-assed.’
Over the last few months I have become more aware of the warning signs of burn-out. My recent website update was done intentionally in a way to require far less time, effort, and updates. Other than adding the occasional essay and lecture to the archives, I won’t have to touch anything in the foreseeable future. My blogging is also far more infrequent than it used to be and I am enjoying my time away from the keyboard. With two books on the catapult waiting to launch, I have no intentions of authoring another in the near future. I still have the upcoming Kirkland film and a 2010 talk on Jackson’s Valley Campaign to keep me busy. I’m doing another short piece for Mort Kunstler’s latest print, but that’s it. A few jobs, spread out over long periods of time. Nowadays, that’s the way I like it.
My point today is that we historians (whether professional and amateur) must always be careful not to allow our interests to become obligations, or our passions to become painful. I like to believe that the reason our collective works are of the caliber and quality that they are (whether we are authors, or rangers, or teachers, or guides) is because we love what we do. When we don’t love it anymore – we need to step away and recharge the batteries.
There is so much more to life than the study and pursuit of history. It has taken me years to realize that.
Make time to enjoy our time.
Don’t waste it in lieu of another’s.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:50 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 23 September 2009 12:36 PM EDT
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